Names of Plants, Food, and Drinks Formed by Folk Etymology
This post lists words for plants, food, and drinks, as well as some terms associated with drinks, derived from words in other languages as a result of folk etymology, a process by which speakers adopt the foreign terms after revising them by using existing elements from their native language.
artichoke: The name of the vegetable stems ultimately from the Arabic word al-khurshūf by way of the Spanish term alcarchofa and the Italian term arcicioffo (rendered articiocco in an Italian dialect), with the English form likely influenced by choke.
avocado: The native word for this New World fruit is ahuacatl, which was rendered into Spanish as aguacate, which in turn came to be spelled and pronounced like a now-obsolete Spanish word meaning “lawyer.” (Note the resemblance to advocate.) That word was then adopted into English.
burger: This word is a shortening of hamburger, which originally was styled as Hamburger to denote a resident of Hamburg, Germany, or various things originating there. The connection to Hamburg is obscure, but a patty of ground meat was called a hamburg steak during the late nineteenth century and later, when paired with a bun, a hamburger sandwich, then simply a hamburger. After cheeseburger was coined, hamburger was often shortened to burger.
cocktail: This term for a mixed alcoholic drink or, by extension, various mixtures of substances (as in “fruit cocktail”) has an uncertain origin, but it may derive from the French term coquetier (meaning “egg cup”), from the use of such containers to serve mixed drinks in the late eighteenth century.
demijohn: Several hundred years ago, a large, round bottle wrapped in wicker was in French termed a damejeanne (meaning “Lady Jane,” perhaps from its anthropomorphic appearance). Nearly a century later, an adaptation of the term was adopted into English.
mandrake: Originally, in Greek, mandragoras, the term for a plant whose root has narcotic qualities passed into English through Latin. Because of the resemblance of the middle of the word to dragon, the term was adapted by folk etymology to end with drake, an English variation of dragon.
mangrove: The Spanish word for this tropical coastal tree is mangue (likely adapted from a Caribbean language), and in Portuguese it is called mangle. Adopted into Middle English as mangrow, it evolved to its current form influenced by grove, meaning “a stand of trees.”
mistletoe: Mistel, of uncertain origin, was the name of this shrub that grows on trees and is associated with Christmas (originally, with fertility, hence the custom of kissing under a sprig of the plant around the time of the holiday); in Old English, it was called misteltān (“mistel twig”), and the fading emphasis on the final syllable resulted in the current spelling.
mushroom: The name for various species of fungus is derived from the Latin term mussirionem by way of the Old French word meisseron and its Anglo-French variation, musherun.
pumpkin: The name of the gourd was derived from the Greek word pepon, meaning “melon”; the second syllable of the Middle English descendant pompone (also spelled pumpion) was altered to the diminutive syllable -kin.
saltcellar: A bowl or other container for salt was in Old French called a salier; this term, transformed by folk etymology into cellar, was redundantly attached to the English word salt to describe such an object.
serviceberry: This edible berry acquired its name from the resemblance of the fruit to that of the genus Sorbus, some species of which are called service trees; service is derived from the Latin genus name and is unrelated to serve. (The alternative names juneberry and shadberry derive from the fact that the berries ripen in June, at about the same time as shad proliferate in creeks in New England.)
sparrowgrass: Asparagus, borrowed directly from the Latin version of asparagos, the Greek word for an edible plant, was altered by folk etymology to sparrowgrass.
Welsh rabbit: The name given to melted cheese on toast or a dish with melted cheese and bread was originally a jocular reference, at the expense of the Welsh people, to cheese as a poor person’s substitute for rabbit meat, a delicacy; “Welsh rarebit” is a variant.
witch hazel: The first word in the name of the tree derives from the Old English word wice, meaning “pliable”; the use of witch hazel twigs as divining rods may have prompted the alteration of the name.
wormwood: The alteration of the Old English word wermod, denoting the wormwood plant, the aromatic herb harvested from it, and its derivative, absinthe, perhaps stemmed from the bitter aftertaste of the liquor. Vermouth comes from the German equivalent, Wermuth; that liquor was originally flavored with the herb.
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